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The economics of airport security – the case of Poland

I am writing this sitting in Warsaw’s Chopin airport. Over the last decade I have spend more time in Chopin than in any other airport in the world. The airport has changed a lot over the years and the development in the airport in many ways seem to have tracked the development in the rest of the Polish economy.

In many ways one can say that airports are reflections of the countries in which they are located. Airports tell stories of economic, social and cultural development.

Today I got a very pleasant surprise when I arrived at the airport. A surprise that fundamentally makes me quite a bit more optimistic about Poland’s long-run growth perspectives.

So what have changed at Chopin airport? Well, it is simple, but in my view quite important – airport security has been changed. Until recently and as long back I can remember (more than a decade) the staff taking care of the security check at Chopin airport has been uniformed militia style people in combat style outfits armed with guns.

These people have never seemed especially concerned about seeing their jobs as a service to clients at the airport. Rather they generally never smiled and in general were quite inefficient in getting people through the airport security check.

Today, however, I was not meet by armed military style people, but instead by polite and a lot more efficient staff dressed in normal cloth – and nice orange ties. They looked like the personal in Scandinavian airports. I guess they are personel of a private company rather than government employees (remember they actually smiled…).

Friendly, well-dressed and efficient. Gone were the scary looking, but lazy militia type people. That indeed was a nice surprise.

Over the years have given a lot of thought to exactly what we can learn about airport security and I for many years have had a theory that countries that have military style airport security and where the security staff generally see passages as ‘animals’ which potentially are a threat to security rather than clients that should be served also are countries where government regulation is excessive in other areas of economic life.

Hence, my theory is that if you meet an unfriendly bureaucrat at the security check in the airport then it is also very likely it will be hard to start a business in that country. Therefore, I tend to think of airport security as an indicator of the level of government regulation of the country’s economy. This is something that makes me terribly bearish on the US’ long-term growth perspectives every time I encounter a TSA official in an US airport – and makes me terribly depressed about the prospects for Ukraine and it gives me an understanding of why the Scandinavian countries ‘works’ well despite excessively large public sectors.

It was therefore a pleasure today to meet friendly and efficient people at the security check in Chopin airport. And if my theory has any value this is an indication that Poland has “matured” and the level of regulation is luckily getting lighter. That is good news. So now I am thinking of raising my long-run growth forecasts for Poland…

I would love to hear my readers’ experience with airport security around the world and whether you see the same correlation between the “friendliness” of airport security and the ease of doing business.

PS I have for some time been looking for data on the efficiency of airport security. If any of my readers have knowledge of such data please let me know.

PPS I am less positive on the near-term outlook for Poland. Polish monetary policy has been excessively tight since early 2012. As a consequence the Polish economy is now seeing a sharp slowdown in growth. See my later forecast on the Polish economy here.

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17 Comments

  1. Brett

     /  June 4, 2013

    I suggest a trip to Père Lachaise with a bottle of Polish vodka where you can pay your respects to Chopin and Jim Morrison in style.

    Reply
  2. Lars,
    TSA is hostile, impolite and indifferent, but seldom arbitrary.

    Reply
  3. My big beef with the TSA is that it appears travelers’ delays caused by insufficient staffing/equipment at checkpoints cost travelers many millions per airport per year. Sure seems that the service level is tied to minimum cost of having a checkpoint, not the level that busy, mostly upper-income travelers would choose in interest of the value of their time. (Doubly so for business travelers, whose employers lose time at pre-tax compensation rates.)

    My conclusion is that our national disease of trying to cut costs of “government,” the service level be damned, has anti-subsidized the traveler. I sure wish the price of a ticket included enough mandated service so that I didn’t have to set aside an extra 30–45 minutes to be sure I don’t get stuck in line and miss my flight.

    Reply
  4. Paul Calthrop

     /  June 5, 2013

    Try Australia – efficient, friendly, no hassle or drama. Well laid out designs (tables to unload computers of sufficient length to prevent delay from people ‘not being ready ‘ to go thro the machine. Basic, right

    Then compare with Terminal 5 at Heathrow. I would like to meet the genius who designed this. More expensive equipment (a table is obviously not sophisticated enough) but hopeless. Just hopeless

    Reply
  5. Vanya

     /  June 5, 2013

    In my experience the TSA in Boston is efficient, and even downright friendly on occasion. Massachusetts must be a better place to do business than the rest of the US.

    Reply
  6. Ravi

     /  June 5, 2013

    Lucky Poland. I wonder how airport security is in Latvia… I fear for them!

    Reply
  7. Canadian airports are flawless if in the English speaking part, wanting but functional in Quebec.

    Reply
  8. fatboy

     /  June 7, 2013

    Never met with hostility from TSA; many actually pleasant, actually…
    would YOU like their job?

    Reply
    • Fatboy, did you even read my blog post?

      I personally work in a job where clients is the only thing that matters. The problem with airport security checks in many countries – including in the US – is that travelers are seen as potential terrorists and criminals rather than clients.

      So let me ask you do you think of your fellow travelers as criminals and terrorists as well?

      Reply
  9. Chris Branche

     /  June 10, 2013

    I have traveled through Chopin International in Warsaw many times over the past two decades, and unlike your experience, I have always found the security personnel to be rather personable. I too am quite pleased with how the airport has developed over the past 20 years.

    As far as guns are concerned, I remember traveling internationally through Dusseldorf (armed uniformed personnel with guns inside security area) and many trips to Belfast in 1994-6 (armed personnel immediately by terminal entrance, long before one gets anywhere near security area.

    I also must point out that airports in the USA are not monolithic, and variations do exist – thus it would be rather difficult to select a particular American airport to understand the “stories of economic, social and cultural development” of the USA.

    Reply
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